Last spring, I fell off in a big way. We were riding in the outdoor arena, working on our stops. If you’ve watched reining, or ridden reining, you know what that’s about. It’s about running the length of the arena at top speed, and then asking your horse to stop. If all is right in the world, the horse will tuck his hind legs under and slide to a stop. Really cool if it’s right. Really scary if it’s not.
On this particular day, we were taking our game to the next level. I had been going to shows and getting scores of 69. I wanted 72’s. To get there, we had to take a risk. We had to push our maneuvers to the next level, which means going faster, running harder, and trusting more. That’s what we were doing on that Saturday morning. I was running him harder to his stops, and he was trying harder in his stops. Unfortunately, I mistook trying harder for doing more. I thought that I needed to push more with my body, to sit back farther, to steer with my hand. Inadvertently, I took away the trust I had with Sergio. Going slow, I trusted that he could perform the maneuver with me aboard as a passenger. Going faster, suddenly I was grabbing the steering wheel, pushing the gas pedal and working the clutch. Sergio was confused. In fact, he looked back at me a couple of times as if to say, “What are you doing? I don’t understand this new language you are speaking.”
The ultimate result was that he came into the ground crooked, his back end slaloming off to the right, his front end jarring into the ground. I popped up out of the saddle and off to the right. I had a moment to clutch at the saddle, but all I saw below was dirt. So I fell off. It was not pretty. I left my own slide tracks with my butt and hip. As I crawled around, alternately pressing my forehead into the dirt in pain and fumbling for my glasses, I wanted to quit. I was pushed beyond my limit, and scared. Truly scared, and this is not something I enjoyed one bit. But I knew that I had to get back on, to try the stop again, and do it quickly before the fear really set in. I didn’t need to worry about Sergio’s fear, he understands forgiveness, and offers it up most of the time.
As I climbed back on, knowing I was going to have a beautiful bruise and maybe some swelling, my hands were shaking. My heart was pounding, my thoughts were racing. Even as I readied myself to do it again, I was coming up with excuses not to. Instead, I pointed him to the other end of the pen and kissed. Or at least I pursed my dry lips together and squeezed my shaking legs. Sergio took off for the other end of the arena. As we loped, I told myself that I absolutely had to trust Sergio to do his job. I had to let go of driving and be the passenger (or I would die). It worked; we stopped bigger than we had all day. We quit on that one, but the lesson was learned.
The tricky thing about trust is that it is easy to give when I am in control. When Sergio is providing the impulsion, locked in and doing his job, it’s a lot harder to trust. I noticed, too, that the trust can quietly erode away when we don’t challenge ourselves as a team. If I get in the habit of riding the maneuvers at home at a medium pace, I lose the trust I have in pushing ourselves to go faster. Then we are right back in the same situation, I’m trying to drive and he’s sitting in the driver’s seat.
The thing about the stop is that you absolutely cannot Flinch. As you are flying down the length of the arena, you must remain calm. Your middle must be supple, your legs relaxed, your hand down. I repeat the words of my coach – your hand down. No really, you must put your hand down. If you pick your hand up, it is equivalent to putting your foot on the clutch. The engine revs but the car slows down. If you are focused on the end of the arena and your jaw is set, your eyes are up, your body is flowing with the horse, and the pounding of his hooves fill your head … then, whoa. The horse (who is now one with you) drops out from under you, your body rocks from side to side as he powers to hold on to the ground. You can hear the friction of his sliders on the arena base, and it is a deep moan that echoes in your chest. There is no thought at this time, no worry or wonder, and no doubt. It is simply, “Whoa.”